Carrot and stick - a prospective view on Russian strategy in Serbia

They stand out so much so, that they have become a staple in any well founded geopolitical analysis concerning an almost unlimited number of topics related to the two countries. Furthermore, Serbia has managed to establish itself as the primary Russian partner and ally, not only in the Balkans, but perhaps on the entire continent of Europe, equaling or surpassing in that sense any of the countries of the post-Soviet space. Russia, on the other hand, has always been viewed as and remained the guardian of the Serbs and any Serbian state entity in different degrees of political, military, economic, or cultural aid. Despite having their own, one could argue natural, but in any case minor oscillations, Serb-Russian relations have remained more than amicable primarily due to one major set of reasons, rooted in the ethnic and cultural closeness, and historic similarities between the two nations. Such a strong basis for cooperation has time and again proved to be stronger than any temporary, political or ideological drift on one hand, but little to nothing has been done over the past decades to add to it on the other. In fact, since the coup of 2000, Serbia has gone under tremendous changes, a part of its territory (Kosovo and Metohija) being under the direct NATO occupation, and the rest of the country suffering a true economic colonization, and falling victim to the tyranny of the so called NGO sector and its mechanisms of cultural engineering. In such dire circumstances all of the known paradigms, good and bad, are changing or being open to change. In that aspect, the position of Serbia could be regarded as an inverse example for the geopolitical changes that the greater part of the world is going through. Whereas the unipolarity of political power in the world is living out its dying breaths, or is already dead, the political and social climate in Serbia together with its foreign policy implications is becoming more and more attached to a single course directed towards the EU, and in some ways even towards the NATO. Whereas the influence that Russia has on the international level is rising practically in any political theater of the world, Russian influence in Serbia is being stagnant, or even dwindling. There is no need to stress the degree of damage Serbia and its people are suffering due to being forced and manipulated into the Euro-Atlantist direction, nor the point out the terrible consequences that the same process has on Serb-Russian relations and the prospective policies the latter could have towards the Balkan region. There is however a need to understand how such a process could ever have materialized in a country like Serbia, and to understand and achieve the most effective mechanisms to counter and reverse it.

A historic overview

This would not be the first time in history that Serbia drifted away from a strong Russian influence, and at the same time its own self-determination and political subjectivity. Every time in the past such a process took place, Serbia was under some sort of foreign guidance, pressure and in such position in general that could esily be called occupation. In 1878, after the Congress of Berlin, the young emergin Serbian state became forcibly tied to the policies and influence of its powerful northern neighbor, Austro-Hungary. It took little more than 10 years, a personal change on the throne and in the structures of political power for such an arrangent to fall apart. And in another 10-15 yers, Serbia was on the brink of an armed conflict with the dual monarchy, being at the same time the strongest and most reliable Russian ally in the Balkans, prooving such a bold claim time and again in the First world war and its aftermat. This Serbian self-liberation and emancipation happened without any significant Russian aid, not because the latter was not an ally of the Serbs, nor because it saw no exact interest in aiding its ally, but because no help was really needed. Every step that Serbia took in order to become a truly independent country on the international level, as well as internal, took the young country in the direction of Russia. Not a single political scheme could put a stop, or even significantly slow down such a natural process, and it became painfully apparent in the First World War where the two countries formed what could be argued as the only true alliance on the entire Entante side.

In the interwar period, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929) led by the prewar Serbia had very cold and strained relations with the newly established Soviet Union. So cold and strained in fact, that there were neither official diplomatic relations, nor the mutual recognition of the countries before 1940. This would place the Serbian lead Yugoslav state as the last country in Europe to recognize the Soviet Union and establish formal relations with it. Not the best example of friendship and cooperation? No, not between the Serbian monarchy and the Bolshevik government in Moscow. However, the entire Russian White movement found its refuge in Serbian led Yugoslavia, its strongest ally and last true friend. So, it could easily be argued that Serbs formed the last remaining political power that was to unconditionally aid the remnants of the Russian empire and its traditions. Russian white immigrants were pivotal in shaping the post WWI Serbian society and culture, with Serbs owning much of their finest achievements in arts and science to their Russian kin arriving from its revolution torn homeland.

Only after the Second World War, and namely after the Stalin-Tito split, do the relations between the Yugoslav state and the Soviet Union, both housing and to varying extents representing the two nations and their interest, became truly distant. Understanding this period has a number of significant reasons, not only for grasping the Yugoslav position in the Cold war, but also for understanding techniques and mechanisms by which the Western powers manage to keep Serbia out of the nearest Russian orbit to this day and probably in the close future.

Titoist regime was established as a direct consequence of Soviet liberation of the territory formerly belonging to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But despite the fact that it were the Soviets who put Tito in power, the Yugoslav dictator also enjoyed support from the capitalist powers of the Allies, namely Britain and the USA. That support would come in handy three years after the war ended, when the Inform Bureau passed its resolution targeting the socialist government of Yugoslavia. Not only that, but one could argue, without the risk of entering the space of speculation and conspirology, that it was the western support that not only aided, but perhaps even initiated Tito’s split from his biggest ally, the Soviets. The West was certainly a side that profited out of it the most. Economically and militarily, Yugoslavia could have been regarded as a mediocre power at best, but its Cold War influence was exceptionally high, especially after forming the so called “Unaligned movement”. By creating this pseudo third block in the bipolar setting of the geopolitics of the era, Yugoslavia actually served a great favor to the West by shifting all of the ex-colonies and other countries that became known as the Third world and that were socialist or were inclined towards socialism away from its international base set around the Warsaw pact. All of this was done with the aid and perhaps guidance of the US and possibly other western powers, but without any strict opposition on behalf of the Soviet Union, at least not after Stalin’s death. Soviets were content with repairing the damaged relations with Yugoslavia, along with advancing the economic and military cooperation with this Balkan state. And so a type of geopolitical paradox came into being. Yugoslavia, despite being a socialist country practically formed in the field by the Soviet Red Army served a greater purpose to the adversaries of its creators with both sides seemingly content with such a situation. It is worth noting that the Serbian factor within the communist party in socialist Yugoslavia was systematically limited by the catholic dominated and Austro-Hungarian shaped Croats and Slovenes who saw no interest in cooperating with the USSR and every interest in tying themselves once again to the rising German influence.

Yugoslavia served its purpose during the entire length of the Cold war, and only with the imminent demise of the Soviet empire did the Western powers decide to dismantle their favorite “communist” creation. In the ensuing Yugoslav wars, only the Serbs proved willing to defend the dying country along with its failed political and economic system. It was the newly independent, or restored if you will, Russia under Boris Yeltsin that failed to aid its ally this time. Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, a controversial figure that can be attributed with many flaws and mistakes did one thing right – he formed his foreign policy over time based on strategic resistance to the negative western influences, trying to restore and further the traditional Serb-Russian alliance. The West could not tolerate such a figure occupying the Balkan political space, so it had to remove it. They did so in the coup of October the 5th, arguably the first color revolution ever. The events following this coup proved decisive in shaping the Serbian socio-political paradigm for the following 15 years.

A lesson to be learned from the West

The change of political power in Belgrade has, at first sight, done nothing to distance Serbia away from Russia. In fact, with the rising Russian power following the emergence of Vladimir Putin, coupled with a center right government being formed in Serbia in the beginning of 2004, the two countries have seemingly advanced their relations. Even the leftist government of former Serbian president Boris Tadic tried to further that process. The same goes with the current Serbian government of Aleksandar Vucic, a former nationalist radical turned into a pro-European moderate. And when we take a look at the results of the cooperation of the two countries, there is something to show. The gas and petrol industry of Serbia was acquired by Russian Gazprom in 2008 and a number of mutual trade agreements have been signed and implemented. Russian support for Serbia in its struggle against the independence of Kosovo was never under question.

However, the main course of Serbian foreign policy, along with the direction of the country’s internal reforms, has for the past fifteen years been firmly set towards the EU. If such a strategy, from the Serbian standpoint, has been justifiable up to the 2008 and the declaration of Kosovo’s independence, supported by the majority of the EU countries and the western world in general, it became obsolete after that. In fact, the degree of support the so called independent Kosovo gets from its western protectors renders the European ambitions held by a good part of the Serbian elite and a percentage of the media manipulated general population almost masochistic. Coupled with the harsh consequences that the world economic crisis left on Serbia, it exposes the behavior of the country’s elites inexplicable. That is, until the means by which the West dominates today’s Serbia are exposed.

Those means are two fold and consist of constant political, economic and even military pressure from the outside joined by the pressure of the pro-Western elites and their NGO sector on the inside. Looking at Serbia’s rich history of resistance to any foreign occupier along with the modern struggle that the country has put up against the Western oppression, it is clear that only by attacking and influencing the nation and its people by these various means simultaneously, a result that they have could be achieved.
Serbia can, of course, do little to ease the external pressure that is put up against her, but it can certainly do something about the internal weaknesses that it has and that the West exploits. So can Russia.

The EU-NATO dominated NGO sector in Serbia has received, according to various estimates, funding of between 300 million and a billion dollars each year. Numerous NGOs, numbering hundreds if not thousands have sprung up and shaped the society that we have here today. Even though their primary objectives are in most cases limited to the internal political, social and cultural issues, their repercussions are quite visible in Serbia’s foreign policy as well. The entire political discourse is shaped such that not only the anti-Western initiatives, but the very idea of examining the pro-Western course of the country is regarded as heresy. Furthermore, Serbian identity is under so strong of an attack that it may suffer from permanent changes in the unwanted direction. It is quite unnecessary to stress how this affects Russian position in the country.

The pressure that the political parties in Serbia suffer from this oversized NGO machinery is tremendous to the extent that it shapes and reshapes the ideologies and policies of not only individuals, but the entire organizations. The shift from radical nationalist (as even their name implied) towards the pro-EU moderates that the Serbian Radical Party, in the shape of its strongest wing that formed the Serbian Progressive party went through is only the most apparent example of this. And even though most of those political forces are subdued to and controlled by the western influence, they receive only moderate rewards from their “partners”. Serbia, as a whole, on the other hand receives little to no reward.

By acting in such manner, the West creates a state of true competition between the parties of the Serbian political scene. A competition that seeks to prove which one of those political forces will be the most open and submissive to foreign influence. And if that is not enough, there are always the NGOs to put additional pressure on those that are perhaps seeking to exits this foul game.

Carrot and stick – a proposal for a Russian response

Russia, on the other hand, does little to nothing of the aforementioned. The good relations that Moscow holds with Belgrade seem to be enough to satisfy its ambitions. Even though they are amicable at this current point in time, the political processes that shaped them are not going in their favor. The rapidly westernizing public scene in Serbia is becoming more open to things unimaginable to the traditional discourse of the country. The best example of this is the county’s possible integration into NATO. An idea that was not even taken into consideration only a few years ago has its open proponents today. However marginal these factors may be, they are a hair closer to accomplishing their objective than they were ever before. And seeing how the public discourse in Serbia has been eased out of its formerly adamant stance that Kosovo will not be sacrificed for any goal whatsoever, it becomes apparent that a lighter stance towards the NATO integrations could be pushed through in a similar fashion. The recent visit of the Serbian prime minister along with a numerous delegation of Serbian politicians and businessmen to Moscow may seem to have quashed these NATO integration pioneers, but further political action against them would be well advised. Yet to be disclosed agreements signed in Moscow, some of them regarding the prospective acquirement of Russian weaponry by Serbia need to be implemented and furthered. Only with such clear multi-leveled cooperation can the danger of NATO, both direct and indirect, be lessened in Serbia.

The main flaw of the Russian approach may be in the fact that Moscow only deals with the official Belgrade. This way, only one of the two major factors that shape the modern political scene in Serbia is targeted. And even in this aspect, the Russian side holds a minimalist approach. On a wider scale, it may seem that it obtains in Serbia everything that it needs, but when put into context of the specific Serbian case and its historical tightness with Russia, it is clear that the Kremlin is getting only a small portion of the possible result. In fact, I do not think it would be too bald to say that the only satisfactory result that the Russian policy in Serbia could have would be a stop, or at least a break on Serbia’s euro-integration path. For achieving this, the Russian side may even need to put open pressure on the official Belgrade, when it fails to deliver the expected actions.

This, however, may only be done in connection with the other aspect of the political influence such as it is in the modern world, and that is through application of methods of soft power. This can be done, and the West has unfortunately proved so time and again, in Serbia as well as in many other places in the world, through the formation of a parallel NGO sector. If Russia does little in the offensive aspect of influencing the official Belgrade, it does nothing in creating, or aiding the existing NGO forces that are inclined towards it. And the land for such a movement will prove to be, due to historic, linguistic, cultural and religious closeness and similarities, far more fertile than it was for any similar western endeavor. Put simply, Russia has to invest far less money, influence, both formal and informal, and far less political power in order to rival and surpass the West in Serbia.

Knowing all this leaves us with the final notion of concern, and that is the Serbian political opposition. This term can easily be used as an umbrella expression for all the ideological opponents to the western course of Serbian politics, including, but not limited to the Eurosceptic political parties. Those parties may currently seem somewhat marginal, but their electorate consists of between 40% (current figure of the anti-EU determined populace) and 80% (the pro-Russian populace) of the Serbian population. Receiving open aid from the official Moscow, or at least from a good part of its structures would do them more good than any financial injection does to the Western oriented side of the political specter. Russia could also use the rising power and influence of these parties to pressure the Europhile government even before it expectedly falls out of power in some future elections. This way, a multi-method approach would come into fruition, preventing much of the damage to the Serbian state, along with Russian position in it, before it becomes able to repair the damage already made.

Even in such a position, burdened by all the aforementioned problems and difficulties, Serbia was, is, and will be the firmest and most adamant Russophile on the European continent. Every government in power in Belgrade faces this unchangeable constant and will have to act accordingly.

The prospective Russian supported NGO sector coupled with the Eurosceptic opposition would enable Russia to lead a policy towards the official Belgrade in the same methodological aspect that the West uses to deal with the entire Serbian people. Even though this carrot and stick approach may sound harsh or seem unpopular, it will certainly prove effective. It already has, only on the wrong side of the Serbian coin.